Monday, September 5, 2022

Honoring the Dice and Letting the Game Run Away With You


This is a bit of a callback to an older article on how Chaos makes TTRPGs more fun.

This long weekend, my wife and I are finally able to get a game running after a long vacation where we had little privacy and a lot of expectations on our time. After a discussion of a plot of my son's favourite cartoon awhile back she challenged me to write a campaign with the premise "Mutiny & Mind Control."

What I came up with was a blend of elements from Delve 2e, Pirates of the Caribbean, Path of Exile, the original Tomb Raider games, and the Sorcery! series of Fighting Fantasy games. And decided on playing the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for a system. Just because I can.

The Setting

My premise is this: The uncharted island of Nadalia, a week's sail to the West of Xen is home to an immortal Witch-Queen, who has lived to see multiple civilizations rise and fall around her. She lives in the ruined splendor of her second fallen empire as she seeks the final steps to true godhood. To keep her in slaves and test subjects, she has seeded the mainland with crystal hypnosis balls that allow her to capture the mind of heroes, power-hungry magicians, and aristocrats and turn them into pirates and slavers on her behalf.

The campaign begins on the merchant galleon Weatherlight, whose captain, a powerful magician named Winter, has been ensnared by the Witch-Queen. He has engaged on pillaging, butchery, and slaving across a small island chain off the Gaysian coast, always a step ahead of the news of his treachery. He has terrorized his crew into obedience, despite their objections.

PCs could begin as 1st level crew members with gear, but the stain of complicity in piracy. Or as 0-level prisoners with a mild boost to stats. In either case, the campaign starts with a mutiny and angry prisoners breaking free 

Not only do the PCs have to contend with three factions, the mad and powerful captain, and a giant squid sent by the witch queen to ensure that the ship does not turn away before putting in to harbor. (She doesn't want anyone telling tales to the Emperor.)

My Intention

I was hoping to play out a bloody, confusing battle. If the players killed the captain, the ship would be attacked by squid, and they would likely end up shipwrecked on the ship graveyard on the Island's Eastern shore.

If not, they would either need to escape by stealing a lifeboat and be set adrift in the perilous shores around Nadalia.

They would end up needing to explore and survive without the help of civilization on the beaches and in the jungle one way or another. I wanted the campaign to focus on scratching by a living in the jungle until they could find either the hidden village of outcasts known as Boar's Run, or find a way to live in the fringes and underground of the pirate port and slave city of the Witch-Queen, or until they get themselves killed in one of the many dungeons and dangerous caverns I have dotted across the map.

My ideal star would have been a mirror of Delve 2e, where player characters end up on a wreck-strewn beach, and then have to navigate a perilous cavern before discovering the Castaway village. However, I chose not to use Wreckhome from Delve. Instead, I made my own town that borrowed some traits from it, but was also unique in other ways, including having mentors, and a desperate need to keep under the Witch-Queen's radar.  The sea cave on Nadalia is definitely not Cragbarren's,  either, although, like in Delve 2e, the PCs would find a kindly old guard waiting for them with apologies and condolences to guide them to the town of Boar Run.

In Actual Play...

My wife's PCs led the freed NPC prisoners out of the brig, and with very well-played diplomacy managed to convince the prisoners to put aside their differences and Ally with the mutineers.

With surprise, good initiative, and weight of numbers they bulldozed most of the loyal pirates on the ship and took the vessel, but then the captain showed up and again slaughtering low level NPCs by the literal dozens. They killed him only by the skin of their teeth...

At which point of the Witch-Queen's giant squid attacked the ship. Most of the PC characters ended up to tossed into the Sea and swimming for their lives to the shores through a shark-infested ship graveyard.

Her PCs salvaged some equipment, saved some allies, and made their way to a wayshrine on the beach. They settled there, within sight of  the perilous sea caves that a magical voice has assured them leads to safety.

All was going pretty much as I had expected it would...


I do not care for railroads. For the early part of the campaign, however, I find it is very helpful to offer strong pushes in certain directions. Those first adventures  will really establish the play style for the whole campaign. But since I was a teen and learned from my mistakes, I have strove

After the first couple of Adventures, it's best to open it up as a sandbox some of the player characters do what they like. If you've played your cards right, by then you have set a tone and a direction that the player characters will run with. 

By creating a desperate battle aboard a ship, terrifying monsters in the sea and then leaving them with only a few pieces of waterlogged gear on a blazing hot beach where giant crabs pick off survivors and hammerhead sharks swarm the water, I set the tone for a man-vs.-wilderness jungle survival adventure pretty well.

But then my wife did something unexpected, and after that the dice did something even more unexpected.

While scouring the beach, the PCs came across some surviving pirate crew: two mutineers and one loyal pirate. I had expected and this would either be a battle for revenge, or a tense negotiation ending in the Pirates being taken on as temporary henchmen.

Instead, we ended up with a single duel between the pirate who had embraced her new, brutal criminal lifestyle and a PC. It was a tense battle, and left a PC nearly dead. As did an encounter with skeletons inside one of the shipwrecks.

The PCs were forced to spend an extra couple of days on the beach salvaging, living off of giant crab meat, and recovering from their injuries before they dared brave the cave that would take them off the beach and into the jungle.

The party split up into several different units to handle beachcombing, food gathering, and tending the wounded.

I rolled for one encounter per watch on the following d6 encounter table:

  1. 1d4 Scavengers from Boar Run
  2. 2d6 Giant Crabs
  3. 2d4 Slavers from Carré
  4. 1d3 Colossal Crab
  5. 1d4 Lacedons
  6. 2d4 Huge Ravens

I figured that we would not see too many encounters if they were only active for a watch or two. I was wrong: I rolled 1s for every watch.

The Natives

On the first watch, I rolled that the PCs would encounter Scavengers. The people of Boar Run don't approach survivors on the beach: they have had several tragic events by inviting the wrong people home. They have left warnings and directions in the trap-laden caves in good alignment languages. In this case the Party was surprised, and the encounter occurred at a distance, so I decided to have the scavengers evade the PCs and observe from a distance.

I rolled an NPC reaction check, and discovered that the NPCs were friendly as well as good-aligned. I determined that they would leave some food where the PCs found it on their return trip. But their tracks were studiously covered.

This provides a lot of information to the PCs: there were indeed, as a magic mouth told them in Neutral Good that there is sanctuary nearby. but that there is reason to remain secretive.

The Slavers

The second watch brought slavers to the wayshrine. They offered the PCs food, water, and transport to the fat side of the island to help in an enquiry about the mutiny on the Weatherlight.

With the combination of the earlier kindness (and paranoia) of their unseen benefactors, the party decided that these men were not trustworthy, even before they noticed that they were carrying padded trunches and manacles.

When they refused to go with the slavers, the conversation turned nasty; the slavers started making threats, instead. The PCs answered with a barrage of Sling stones, rocks, and even a hurled cannonball. They had the high ground, and the slavers were overconfident, being used to collecting up poorly armed and frightened people off the beach. Which the party might have been if they hadn't known shelter was nearby.

The PCS quickly killed two of the slavers, and knocked another one unconscious during the overbearing attack, allowing them to tie him up before he woke.

The PCS interrogated him and got far more of the lay of the land than I had intended for them to have at this point in the campaign. They learned that:

  • The island is ruled by a witch who considers everything and every person on it her personal property.
  • The major settlement in the area is a city called Carré, which is famed for its slave markets, and is ruled over by several casts of myrmidons in the Witch-Queen's service.
  • That she uses magic to turn men pirate and calls them to her when their ship is full of treasure and captives 
  • Ships that come without her invitation often wreck on the Eastern Shore, for our attack by the giant squid in the region which she controls.
  • The witch is immortal and demands worship. She has seen civilizations arise and fall around her on the island.
  • Disobedient slaves are sent to a pleasure palace called The Well of Joy for the entertainment of pirates and slave masters.

The slaver remained bold and confident. He kept reminding them that they had nowhere safe to go, and that they would be caught eventually if the jungle didn't eat them up first. He demanded they release him, row him back to Carré, and pray for the Witch-Queen's forgiveness at a shrine to her honor.

This particularly incensed the party sea witch, Myrna. A multi-class half-elf fighter/cleric/magic-user who worships a wild and fickle sea goddess. She decided to do show him that her goddess was more powerful than his, and had him staked out on the shoreline.

The Terrible Omen

For the evening, Myrna took the first watch so that she would get a solid 6 hours sleep later to prepare her spells. She spent the evening continuing her prayer to be shown that the goddess of the sea was mightier than the witch Queen of Nadalia. Which is when I rolled a Colossal Crab encounter.

The monstrous crab rose from the sea and spotted the helpless captive slaver, as he was hundreds of feet closer to the water. As she prayed, the crab grabbed the slaver and devoured him. I described a sense of awe and power emanating from the shrine. (It's sanctuary powers that pacify non-intelligent creatures.)

The Sea Witch interpreted this as another sign from her goddess that she is more powerful than the Witch-Queen and opposes the slavers of Carré.

With such a "clear sign", Myrna has decided that the wrath of the Sea must be visited on the Witch-Queen.

A Different Direction

While survival is still a consideration, my PCs are now armed, armored, and have food and water taken from the slavers. They know there is shelter to have for certain. Survival seems less uncertain.

At the same time, the PCs have come to see the campaign not as a struggle against the elements, but a crusade against the Witch-Queen. The tone and goals of the campaign are radically different now. 

Killing off the one unrepentant pirate who might have been in the party makes "good vs. evil" feel of the campaign more pronounced. The PCs are not going to be content trying to find supplies and knowledge in ruins to barter for food. They are going to be looking for means to destroy the Witch-Queen and bring down the slavers. The jungle and sea are not enemies, they are cover for guerilla warfare.

By rolling with the dice, I find myself running a very different campaign than the one that I planned on paper. It is going to be faster-paced; it is going to have unexpected themes; it is going to be goal-driven.

Talk about a surprise.

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